Thursday, September 27, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, September 27

A coffee visit yesterday reminded me of the painful experience of taking college calculus.  I was an Psychology Major.  I had no calculus or pre-calculus in high school.  I was placed in calculus because of my SAT score, which judged one's math skills based on algebra and trig.  Yesterday's conversation reminded me that I didn't even know what calculus was for!  I didn't understand the foundation question of why I would want to know these formulas and equations.

Yesterday's conversation morphed into a similar awareness of theology and Christian belief.  Too often, we discuss what is at the end, rather than what lies at the foundation.  

Later, at last night's gathering, I was asked to help understand dinosaurs and the biblical stories.  Once again I found myself backing way up to speak of the writing of the bible, rather than answer the simple question of "explain these fossils."

I know that this is one of the disconnects between the ministry I offer and the searching of students.  For most of your life, you have been trained to look at the end of the quest.  I tend to want to back up to the beginning.  There are few irrefutable affirmations in my theological construction, and they all serve as roots of what it means to believe rather than leaves which are produced by the tree's many branches.

There is nothing I love as much as aided persons who seek to examine those roots;  my prayer is that I won't frustrate or turn off those who would rather speak of the end result of the work done by the roots.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, September 26

I read the last of the Book of Job this morning,  The long conversations between Job and the three friends is brought to a conclusion when Job confesses his inability to know that which is known only to God.  Job is a righteous person; he accepts that being loved and chosen by God does not mean that he will understand all things or perceive all things.

It is the desire to know that which is known only to God which lies behind the stories in Genesis 3.  There, Eve and Adam act in an attempt to be like God in their understanding.  This is the transgression which separates them even further from God and from one another.

I wish I knew.  I long for the ability to understand.  But I cannot and I will not.  I must accept that God is God and I am not.  There are some things (many things) which I will need to leave in God's hands.  This can be frustrating; it is always humbling.  

But the One who does know is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."  So, that which is beyond me is in good hands.  With this awareness, I am returned to the way of living which existed during my childhood - I innocently and confidently left things with my parents, knowing they would decide and that they would do what was best for  me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, September 25

This morning I read John's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.  These are the events we associate with Palm Sunday.

One of the parts of that story is Jesus riding on a donkey.

I remember in my childhood years thinking that Jesus' typical mode of transportation was to walk.  To ride would have been a treat!  The festival air of this event was also shown in the paintings that hung in our Sunday School rooms.  There were many happy faces and lots of color!  But the symbolism of Jesus' entry is one of humility.  He is hailed as "King" and "Master," and yet he is not on a powerful stallion that he rides.  It is a service animal; a non-assuming working animal.

The invitation to follow Jesus (the invitation to be like Jesus) is to be humble.  To be a servant, to be a worker.  The eternal benefits to following Jesus are summed up in the opportunity to be known as one who serves, as he has first served us.  There may be no greater compliment for a disciple than doing a helpful act and no one knowing who did it.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Devotion - Monday, September 24

I think it might be helpful to remember that in Acts 15 there is a division in "The Church."  Paul and Barnabas have been traveling together, telling the story of Jesus.  But a dispute arises between them and they decide to part ways.

Church divisions always bring hurt and anxiety, but they are not always of the devil.  Sometimes, they allow two very important perspectives to have central place among the faithful.  By understanding ourselves as one (united in Christ) Church, we have the confidence that God's message is being told best when received as a symphony involving many individual instruments.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, September 20

One of the two by two groups is reading a book titled Sabbath.   It is essential to keep space in our lives for that which isn't already on our schedule. 

How do we respond to those who have an immediate need when our lives are already over filled?

Maintain a sense of Sabbath in your life. It allows you to care for others. It allows you to care for yourself

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, September 19

Acts 14:19 informs us that Paul is stoned by the crowd, drug from the city, and assumed to be dead.

Telling the story of Jesus is not without risks.

We tell ourselves (the whole of the Christian Church tells itself) that we live in a "Christian Nation," so it is no longer risky to tell the story of Jesus.  We want to believe this, and we want to think that Jesus would be pleased with the way we live our lives and the way we tell his story.  

But Jesus tells us how narrow is the way he leads, and Jesus warns us that following his way will bring division in our homes and between our family members.

This is not an encouragement to create strive and separation, but it is an invitation to think about Jesus and about his ministry and ask questions about how we follow the way he walked.  He spoke of those who have two coats while others have none; he shared meals with those looked upon as "unclean"; and he would allow no authority to supersede the authority of his Father.

Paul was stoned and left for dead because he had experienced God's grace and followed the call to live as Jesus' follower.

This is the grace which has laid hold of us, and calls us to follow.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, September 18

In the Gospel of John, those events which other gospel writers call "miracles" are called "works."  Jesus speaks of the "works" he does in the name of his Father.

Those who share this particular theological tradition askew "works."  It is something we shun - but only when there is an attempt to link our works with God's act of salvation.

But surely those who have been saved are inclined to show forth the work of the One who has redeemed us!  Let's make sure that our commitment to a theological principal does not blind us to the role God is calling us to take in the world.

I am also asking you to consider this yoking of "miracles" with "works."  Have we become too limited in our ability to see the miraculous?  Do we overlook the "work" of God's servants, because that work involves weeks or months of toil rather than the waving of a wand or utterance of some secret instructions?

Be it far from us to think that we can merit God's love by means of any work we might do.  Be it also far from us to ignore the invitation to do the work which is at hand.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Devotion - Monday, September 17

I continue to read from Job.  It is the aim of this book to be an aid in understanding why bad things happen.

In the book, there are three elderly, wise men who come to Job.  In the opening scenes, they simply sit with Job and say nothing.  From this, a writer by the name of Martin Marty took the title of his book - "A Grief Observed."  Sometimes, the best thing we can do in the face of the unimaginable is simply sit with the one who is grieving and observe.  They are often the one (as is the case with Job) who speaks the words worth hearing.

Toward the end of Job, another voice is added.  This is Elihu.  His words begin with an acknowledgement that he has not spoken earlier, because he is young.  He honors his elders, allowing them to be the ones who express wisdom.

But, Elihu is frustrated.  He has not heard wisdom.  And so he begins to speak.

In the letters of Paul, we hear encouragement for another young adult.  Paul tells him, "Do not let them despise you because of your youth."  As is spoken by Elihu, it is not years which bring wisdom but a willingness to listen and to be truthful.

There are things which we learn over time.  And it takes time (years) to master the content in many of your classes.  But wisdom does not elude you;  do not be fearful of speaking of what you know and what ought to be known.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, September 13

My readings have me in Acts 16.  This is the part of the letter where stories are repeated of those who came to "believe".  Silas and Paul have been set apart, and are traveling to various towns and sharing the story of Jesus.

As I read, I remembered the student lead devotion shared at last evening's gathering.  I appreciated greatly Sam's lifting up of the number of times and persons who struggle "to believe."  

The passage of scripture shared last evening is the one with the confession "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief."  This is the tug in which we continually find ourselves.  On the one hand, we are believers - otherwise why even open an email from a campus pastor?  On the other hand, each of us must struggle with the particulars of what others have told us it means to believe, or what it is that they believe.

Above all - NEVER fear speaking of your own struggle, least of all speaking to me about it.

Now, go back to that earlier sentence:  "the particulars of what others have told us it means to believe, or what it is that they believe."

Jesus rarely uses "believe" in his invitation.  He speaks of "follow."  The exchanges he has with those whom he encounters has less to do with the finer points of what it means to believe or what is to be believed and more to do with finding oneself in the company of persons striving for the life and way of living seen in Jesus.

When the fear invades your life over whether you "believe" the right thing or believe it strongly enough, shift the question to "is following Jesus and being among Jesus' followers making it possible for me to live more fully?"

We can talk about beliefs - and we will.  But our aim is to experience the joy and comfort and hope and promise of being among those who know the power and ability of the Jesus story to put us where God wants us to be and where we desire to be.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, September 12

As Hurricane Florence approaches the coast, I happen to be reading my way through Job.  

Job is all about why bad things happen.  The opening scene does involve permission being given for Satan (one of only three times in all of the Old Testament where H'satan is personified) to afflict Job.  But the remaining chapters, which are long and tedious reading, delve more deeply into why evil comes into the lives of those who God favors.

The answer to these questions differ; and each of these differing answers are biblically and theologically defensible.  Most Christians fall into one of these responses and never think to consider one of the alternatives.

Some will say, "It is all part of God's plan." Others will insert, "God chastises those whom God loves."  "Free will." is another of the replies.  And so is "One reaps what one sows."

This particular hurricane season I am hearing more about global warming and greenhouse gases and our use of fossil fuels.  The response to the horrors of what may be considered more frequent and more powerful weather events is being attributed to the way in which humans have abused the ecosystem.

I don't know whether your talk with others will end with "Is the game going to be rained out," or if they will include asking "Where is God in all this?"  But in case you do find yourself in the latter, give it some thought before hand.  Examine your thoughts and convictions.  Read Job.  Talk with me.  And if you are looking for a good read, this is the book I love to give folks:  Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy.

Above all, pray for those who are in the path of Florence.  (I sent a note to MUSC, College of Charleston, Citadel, and Coastal Carolina campus pastors that we would gladly house any students needing a place to stay - maybe you could offer a couch for a few days.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, September 11

Today is September 11.

Most of you are too  young to remember September 11, 2001.  If you do have any memories of that day, you certainly don't remember what life was like in this country before 9/11.  So much has changed.  And it breaks my heart, for your sake.

We now seem to live in a world with constant anxiety.  Knowing that we are not insulated or protected from the world's larger battles, we cannot pretend that our ocean borders will protect us.  Fearing "others," we have turned a weary eye to the two neighbors with whom we do share a physical border.

The way of the devil is to point at others.  This is what happened in the Garden of Eden.  9/11 became the permission needed to hate others for who they are, ignoring how individuals live their lives.

So much has changed.  And I am sorry that you will never know a world in which vile words and hateful actions are a part of every day life.

I do not want to minimize the depth of these realities by arriving at a simplistic conclusion.  There is not such an ending.  I will invite you to be honest and truthful and to challenge the forces of evil which seek to isolate us from neighbor and which would encourage us to turn our fear into anger.  We must do as Jesus did.  We must seek a world in which the love of God reigns - and we must live as if that world is already a reality.  We will be scoffed because of our naivete; and we might even be pressed upon for our innocent trust in others.  But such is the way of Jesus.

It is easy to follow Jesus when all is well.  It is another thing to do his will when the power of evil is loose around us.

Make time to pray this day.  Pray for the world.  Pray for those who hate.  Pray for a world in which the promises of God are received by all God's children.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Devotion - Monday, September 10

It is in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called "Christians."  We read about this in Acts 11.  Cyprus and Cyrene are the two who begin to speak of Jesus to Gentiles.  Other early witnesses spoke only to the Jews.  The efforts of Cyprus and Cyrene lead to a great number "that believed and turned to the the Lord."

Christianity has become so thoroughly associated with Western culture that we often forget its origins.  There was considerable debate as to whether Christianity ought to be an add on to Jewish faith.  The earliest followers discussed long into the nights whether a follower of Jesus had to also convert to Judaism.   

The love of God and the truth of God's Word will overcome any human obstacles, but think how differently Christianity might look had Cyprus and Cyrene (and others) not began to include Gentiles.  What if they had allowed the telling of the Jesus story to remain an in-house exchange of how those already a part of the group talked among themselves?

We face a similar question today.  As the Church seeks to understand its role in the world, do we talk among ourselves?  Defining who has a voice and vote before we start a discussion about the mission of the Church and its next steps?

We believe and teach that the Word of God shapes those who hear it and the Church which bears witness to that Word.  Listening and opening the circle lead to great things in Antioch.  Maybe doing the same will lead to great things for the Church in our time.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sermon - 16th Sunday of Pentecost - Year B

Mark 7:24-37
                                                                 All Dogs Go to Heaven

Finally, we have an answer to the age-old question which has bedeviled every parent and pet-owner from the dawn of time.  Yes, it is true, dogs do go to heaven!  Or at least one dog made it, so others have reason to think they might, too.

A “dog” is what Jesus calls this woman.  There is no way to pretend this isn’t what he said.  When she asks (when she begs) that Jesus cast out the demon from her daughter, Jesus says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  For all we know, he might have preferred to refer to her using the less-than-socially-acceptable slang for a female dog!  Maybe he shows some restraint; but he still goes at her rather direct.  “Get away from me, you mother of dogs!”

This is not the Jesus we are accustomed to reading about.  It is difficult to image what Jesus is thinking at this point. 

You and I might not understand the geographic references which make this encounter inevitable.  Mark is clear in stating the name of the region in which Jesus says these things.  He is in “the region of Tyre”.  Does anyone know where Tyre is?  Well, it is way up north – further north than any other recorded event in the Gospel narratives.  He is no longer in the heart of Jewish country.  And, maybe for good reason. 

Do you remember where Jesus was in last week’s reading?  He wasn’t in the heart of Jewish territories, but he was closer.  He is in Bethsaida, which just a bit north of the Sea of Galilee.  There, in Jewish country, Jesus is verbally challenged by Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem.  Jesus has to tell them it isn’t the traditions of their elders nor the convictions of their teachers which will save them.

Perhaps frustrated by these encounters with the Jewish insiders, he decides to “set out and went away.”  And where he goes to is a place where he is unlikely to meet many Pharisees or scribes or high priests or priests of any ilk.  He goes to Tyre.  He goes to the territory of Gentiles (non-believers).

He enters a house, and “did not want anyone to know he was there.”

Here is another strange thing: “He entered a house”?  Did he go to the home of someone he knew?  Or was he invited into a house by the brother of a sister to a cousin who was among his group of twelve?  Or was this house listed as the perfect Air B&B for someone looking to avoid attention while retreating to the region of Tyre?  Is this yet another hint that Jesus as to why Jesus is so insulting to this woman?  His attempts to retreat to a mountain top for solitude had failed – that is how the 5,000 came to a lonely place with no food to eat.  Maybe Jesus is looking for a break, a time away.

And this woman enters the picture.  Maybe that is why he calls her a dog. 

In trying to recast this encounter in a positive light, some biblical scholars say that Jesus was testing her.  That he didn’t mean it when he referred to her in this way, that he was making sure she was all in before he did as she asked.  That may be an acceptable explanation to those who read about the encounter from a distance of a few centuries, but I am not sure it meets my standard for acceptable behavior in the moment. 

If you have ever been present when a mother begged for the welling being of her child you know that such mothers have already been tested and are very close to the breaking point.  There is no ambiguity with regard to what they believe and what is in their hearts.  It doesn’t get Jesus off the hook to say he knew how this would turn out and just wanted the rest of us to learn from her persistence.

Others have suggested this is an expression of Jesus’ humanity.  You know, the divine-human divide.  Two natures; one person.  There are other such stories.  Like the reference to Jesus as a young lad using his divine power to win at a game of marbles.

Where I begin to draw a significant learning from this story is when it begins to teach me something about the very nature of God.  This is a notion upsetting to some – in fact speaking of this in this sanctuary a few years ago got more than a few riled up.  So let me speak more carefully this time, and ask that any part which is upsetting be discussed further when I am not the only one talking.

What if this encounter in the region of Tyre reveals to us a Jesus who is himself willing to schooled as to what his witness and his message will mean to the world?  What if this encounter allows us to see “repentance” not merely as something God seeks from us but something which is the very nature of God?

Jesus’ witness and his message are going to change the world and change the way we live in the world.  It is a simple thing to say that God loves everyone, but it is quite another thing to live out what it means to love those who do not speak the name of God or follow the traditions of God’s chosen people.  It sounds wonderful to say that everyone cares for and looks out for the wellbeing of our neighbors; it is quite another thing to give up our Saturday moving furniture into a new home for one of our Family Promise Neighbors.  The region of Tyre continues to be a region of insults.  And because some of the residents of that region speak poorly about the US, our government is about to cut off United Nations funding for the refugees living in that part of the world.

If dogs go to heaven, there are going to be more than a few unhappy cats.

The invitation to follow Jesus is gentle and calming.  What Jesus wants most for us is a happy and joy-filled life.  Following Jesus puts us on that trajectory.  But the path is fraught with the need to examine and readjust our prior assumptions.

In Tyre, Jesus himself comes face to face with this.

In reading Mark 7, we are brought face to face with it, too. 

It is not the traditions of our elders nor the convictions of our teachers which align us with the will and way of Jesus.  It is the simple decision to follow.  To follow where he will lead us.  And be forewarned - where we are lead is not always where we thought we would go.


Thursday, September 6, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, September 6

Acts 10 contains a story which resounds with the same message as this coming Sunday's Gospel text:  Christians are not to an exclusive bunch!

In Acts 10, Peter has a vision.  There is set before him a feast of foods orthodox Jews were not to eat.  Peter refuses.  This feast is offered to him three times.  Finally, he hears the voice of God saying, "What I have made, no one can call unclean."  At that same moment, there arrives at his door visitors from the household of a Gentile.  They were sent to ask Peter to come to the home of this man.

The story this Sunday is of a Gentile woman who comes to ask Jesus to hear her sick daughter.  There is some back and forth; but Jesus admires this woman and does as she asks.

We are too fast to allow our gut reactions to rule the interaction we will have with others.  Our brain's quick analysis and assumptions stand in the way of a reasoned response and openness to what might be possible should we wait and listen and see where God is leading us.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, September 5

Clemson University ignores Labor Day.  Classes are not cancelled; professors are in their offices; and staff persons are carrying out their tasks.  

And we all miss the opportunity to reflect on what it means to "labor."

The work we do has meaning beyond earning us a paycheck.  The labor of our hands adds to the creating and maintaining an ordered society in which each of God's children are cared for and valued.  We work to see the common good of all elevated.

Some of us will set our sites on a particular career and move into that type of work.  Others of us will find a job and then discover how it accomplishes our hopes.  What is essential is that we look at our labor with the same eyes as we look at other aspects of our daily lives - how is this reflecting my hope and trust in Jesus?

What we do matters.  It matters to God; it matters in God's world.  Reflecting on such topics matters, too.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Devotion - Monday, September 3

Yesterday was the Tubing Trip.  We load up the van (and 2 cars) and drive over to Helen, GA, and float down the Chattahoochee River. It is a lot of fun.

We didn't pause as often as we could have to give thanks for the river, for the trees, for the blue sky above us.  But it was obvious how much each was appreciated.  The simplicity of "floating along" took away all the complications of daily routines.  I am not among those who want to shout "Put your phone away!"  But that also happened.  

One of the things I noted was the diversity of the folks floating with us.  There were many Spanish speakers.  Persons who seemed to be from India.  And there were two groups whose words reminded me of Swahili I heard in Tanzania.  You get very close to your fellow floaters.  Bumping their tubes, helping them over rocks, listening to their conversations as you float within arms length of their tubes.  In my prayers, I imaged a world in which we all realized ourselves to be floating down the Chattahoochee.  At peace with the world as God has made it; bumping into others - helping them and appreciative of their assistance in getting our tube over the shallow spots and rocks.

We only go tubing once a year. Maybe we should go more.  I hope those who went yesterday will today image their life story somewhat differently.  I pray they will retain the calm and beauty which was God's gift to us yesterday.